Pennsylvania Driving Update: Cell Phones, Texting and Teenage Driving Restrictions

In the final month of 2011, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed new legislation which will bring dramatic change to how its residents are permitted to drive within the Commonwealth. After countless rumors, newspaper articles, and TV reports regarding the dangers of cell phones/texting while driving, the Commonwealth banned text messaging while driving on any road or street within the State. The ban took effect in early March of 2012 and made texting a primary offense under the traffic code which allows police officers to stop and ticket any offender for that reason alone. While the fine is only $50.00, the effect of a citation on a person’s driving record for the purposes of car insurance remains unknown. Typically any moving violation carries an increase in insurance premiums.

While the state has now passed legislation with regards to text messaging, there is no statewide restriction on the use of cell phones while driving on state roads. Despite statewide legislation on the use of cell phones, many local municipalities including the City of Philadelphia passed ordinances to restrict the use of a cell phone while operating an automobile within its municipal limits. The constitutionality of local ordinances, however, was consistently challenged throughout the State.

While local legislatures have argued that bans on cell phone driving relate to public safety and not just motor vehicles, the new state law effectively ends the city’s ban on the use of cell phones while driving. Constitutionally the city’s ban can only remain in effect if the state law is silent on the issue. The new law changes this situation. The motor vehicle code is a state law which only state lawmakers can amend. The cell phone ban in Philadelphia carries with it a $75.00 fine.

In addition to restrictions on the use of cell phones while driving, Pennsylvania also passed new teen driver restrictions which went into effect on December 27, 2011. Pennsylvania passed legislation in response to studies which showed that teen drivers are more prone to take risks, not wear seatbelts, attempt to multi task, and tend to be more distracted while driving. The new law mandates that a teen driver can only carry one (1) non-family member passenger younger than 18 years of age during the first (6) months of driving. Following that six (6) month period the law permits teen drivers to carry three (3) non-family members under the age of 18 as long as the teen maintained a clean driving record during the first six (6) months of licensure. The only exception to these restrictions is if the teen is accompanied by a parent or guardian while operating the vehicle. In the event that a teen is involved in an accident in which he or she is partially or fully responsible, the one (1) passenger rule applies until the teen reaches the age of 18. In addition to driving restrictions, the new law also enhances teen driving education.

The law expands behind the wheel training from 50 to 65 hours. Ten (10) of those hours, must be at night and five (5) must occur during inclement weather. Finally, the new legislation addresses the issue of seatbelts which remain the main cause of driving deaths among teens. The new law permits a police officer to stop a vehicle driven by a teen driver if he or she observes the driver or any passenger within the vehicle not wearing a seatbelt. While some have argued that these restrictions are too severe, studies have shown that teen drivers are involved in crashes at four (4) times the rate of adult drivers. It is believed that most of these crashes were due to the age and inexperience of the drivers.

Many are referring to the law as Lacey’s Law in memory of Lacey Gallagher who lost her life in the spring 2007 following a motor vehicle accident involving seven (7) teenagers riding in an SUV at 3:00 a.m. It is believed that the driver of the vehicle lost control in dense fog on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Ms. Gallagher was killed and the remaining young people were injured in this incident. There was no indication that alcohol was involved in this accident. While many may believe that these restrictions go too far, it is hard to argue with the statistics which show a direct correlation between the loss of life, inexperience and teen driving.

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